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Official Secrets — A Movie Review from an Academic Perspective

We went to see the movie “Official Secrets” this weekend, starring Keira Knightley in the role of Iraq War whistleblower Katharine Gun (UK). The film is based on the book “The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War”, and earlier this year Gun also talked to The Guardian (podcast) about her story. For the past decade, the subject matter of hiding and disclosing state secrets has fascinated me, and so did the movie.

When I started my research into secrecy and leaks in the European Union about a decade ago —I’ve written at length about the latter parts of this trajectory in January—I had just turned away from the idea to become a diplomat. Among other things, I realized that I would have a hard time knowing secrets in such a job – and not being able to talk about them.

Instead, I turned towards uncovering secrets hidden in plain sight as a blogger. I turned to transparency activism in Brussels. I wrote a thesis on how leaks were distributed in EU policy making, and I researched how the European Commission prevents leaks. Last winter, I taught an MA class on “Secrecy, Transparency, and Lobbying in the European Union” here at LMU Munich.

Watching the movie “Official Secrets”, the first thing that struck me was how rarely women are displayed as whistleblowers or anti-secrecy activists. In my time at Transparency International (TI-EU) in Brussels and afterwards, the most inspiring activists I got to know were amazing women: my boss and many colleagues at TI-EU; most of the team of Access Info Europe; brilliant whistleblower protection advocates; or the engaged outgoing and hopefully soon re-elected EU Ombudsman.

Not to mention Chelsea Manning.

The second thing that struck me, and the movie manages to capture that element quite well, is how lonely both living with secrets and exposing secrets about unethical or illegal behaviour can be. A lot of whistleblowers are portrayed as lone wolves, but there’s just a systemic pressure to be exactly that kind of character if you want to go against a collective culture of secrecy.

The third thing that I learnt and that I did not know was that this is a story about undue influence on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) ahead of the Iraq War.

The UNSC is an institution I’m currently doing research on, notably through a large corpus of UNSC speeches from 1995-2017, so including the time period of the Iraq War debates. When I recently did a sentiment analysis of the corpus, I could see that the meetings on the Iraq War were among the most negatively loaded meetings in the 2000s.

The fourth thing, [spoiler alert for this paragraph if you don’t know the story already!], and this perfectly depicted in the last scene of the movie, is the element of time: for those seeking to reveal undue secrets, time is scarce, because the secret kept secret for too long risks harming others in society. On the other hand, for the state or other institutions keeping secrets, time horizons are much larger. They can wait. Letting Katharine Gun wait although it was clear she would not be prosecuted was meant as a punishment. I’ve experienced it myself a dozen times, when EU institutions delayed disclosure of documents for which I could not really wait, while they had all the time in the world.

The last thing that struck me through the movie is how little awareness there often is for those who try to work against the devastating effects of unethical secrecy.

When Gun leaked the documents to prevent the Iraq war, I was a soldier in the German army, a young adult in obligatory military service, worried about the upcoming war. I was worried for different reasons than she was, but worried nevertheless. Until this weekend, I wasn’t even aware that someone in the UK had tried to prevent the war that frightened me at the time. We were told back then that we’d have to protect US army bases in Germany when the war would start.

In the end, the war started just as I was to leave the army, so I never really had to be concerned, but it’s kind of reassuring to know that there were people inside the UK government brave enough to stand up against it. It’s sad that the attention for those who try to stop wars and atrocities may come only years or decades later, but at least movies as an art form can contribute to awareness.

Why blog about this?

In a sense, many political scientists deal with topics that are of interest to art and popular culture, so we should more often leave the ivory tower and talk about these connections so that students realize this is more than dry theory.

And this movie connected my own research agenda on secrecy in the EU and on the United Nations, so it felt pretty close to home watching it. At the same time, the movie is not your fast-pace, big-picture story à la “The Fifth Estate” (on Wikileaks) or “Snowden“, so it doesn’t draw the same exciting move reviews that you may find for other whistleblower moves.

Watch “Official Secrets” nevertheless. Don’t come fore pace, come for the story.

It is a reminder that secrets are an everyday reality in rather boring public administrations, and that pretty normal people are faced with tough questions when they come across secrets that the public should see. More importantly, it is a call to activism against secrecy acts, for freedom of information, and the legal and social protection of whistleblowers and their families.

And even though the Iraq War wasn’t prevented, I was thankful for Katharine Gun’s heroism after watching the film this weekend. And I continue to be fascinated by these topics for my own academic research and teaching.

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